Tour Diary: Milan-Cantu- Pavia: Will, king of Tetris, rumination on the coronation of kings and the best Salami in the world.
Friday 28th February 2014
I wake at two minutes past two in the morning. It’s dark outside and breezy – I can hear the wind playing with the trees in my back garden. My alarm is set for 3.45am but I am up now and it’s best to get ready and wait rather than disturb the rest of the house. I sit and watch the road outside my home, only two cars pass in the time I wait. One is an estate car that is laden with washing bags and the second a small town car zipping up towards the main road. I wonder where they are going. Is it an adventure or a commute? I hope for adventures.
I get bored. I know we have a tight turnaround to get to Gatwick and onto the flight so I decide to stand outside and wait. It’s not often you get time to stand in the still of pre-dawn and so I take my chance. It’s cold but I listen to the cacophony of bird song coming from the trees opposite my home. There’s mistletoe high up in the branches of one tree. Will, The Lucky Strikes drummer, comes hurtling down the road just after 4am. Dave and Paulie are already on board. Everyone has rheumy eyes but spirits are high. We pick up our last man, Toby, and head for the airport.
Will makes good time. Toby suffers motion sickness but does a sterling job as we eat up the A13 and the M25. I suffer non-motion sickness. I have to always move. Will is definitely dad today and we follow him like tired lost sheep over the airport, through security and onto the plane. I get nervous at airports, very nervous. I had some trouble on the US/ Canadian border in Buffalo a few years back and I’ve never quite trusted them since. Eyes forward, affable English smile and no laughing, please.
The flight takes no time at all. I sit next to Will and I find it quite enjoyable to watch him play Tetris on his phone, openly willing him to beat his high score. The other three sit on the opposite side of the aisle. Paul mainly sleeps and Dave is reading The Maltese Falcon. Toby gets the window and spends most of the time listening to his ipod while looking out onto France. An hour into the flight I see the Alps for the first time in my life. They are vast and snowy. I remark to Will that the snow looks like icing sugar, so pristine and innocent of human print. He recounts his snowboarding adventures and tells me how there is a witching hour in the afternoon when the sun makes the treacherous snow look flawless and often the low hanging cloud can look like snow too. People have stepped off of mountains into that cloud expecting snow under foot.
We arrive at Milan Malpensa airport before 10am and I am waved through passport control by a man talking on what looks like his personal mobile phone. Ed, Lowlands’ lead singer and songwriter is waiting for us. It’s our first meeting but it feels like old friends. He buys us an espresso and wow, it is good. Really good. He tells us that Italians drink espresso throughout the day and a cappuccino is for breakfast. No Italian will drink Cappuccino after midday. Marko, a Lowlands acolyte, is our second driver. He’s young and works at SpazioMusica while studying for an Economics degree. He is passionate and air drums to Lowlands tunes as we slice through the monotonous hubbub of the airport (they are the same everywhere) and onto the main road leading south. The countryside is very English, the trees and the fields. The day is grey and wet and every now and then you are reminded of being in a different country when the square brown brick church towers pierce the skyline. We drink it in.
An hour’s drive gets us to Ed’s house in a small town called Cava Manara. Toby crashes straight away while the remaining four of us decide to head into the town square. It’s everything I expected Italy to be. Grey washed cobblestone alleys, yellow and mustard coloured houses, tall and thin with each window sporting wooden shutters. Ornate ironwork covers the lower windows and the roofs are exquisite with crenulated tiles piled upon one another. We head to a local bar. Quiet, clean, epically stylish in a continental way. I try and order three beers and a coke. I speak no Italian but with the use of hand signals we get there and settle into a corner watching MTV. Tears for Fears and Prince. The beer is lager and tastes of cloves. We are all young men in love; with what we’re not really sure.
On our return Ed introduces us to his beautiful family and we get hit with the most exceptional food. At least four varieties of cured pork, hefty cheese and fried dough. It drives us wild. We talk politics and the European Union. We talk about national identity and music. Ed explains that Italy is a country that connects Africa with Europe and how, being only a country since the 1860s (thanks to Garibaldi and Giolitti, if my A-level history recalls) there is a weaker national identity and how northern Italians identify themselves more with the Swiss and the Germans than they do with their southern countrymen.
Our first gig is in Cantu, which is north of Milan. This means a long trip through the Milanese hinterland. We pass through Como and onto our first venue. All’ Unaetrentacinque is a great place. Like an underground cafe with pictures of performers on the wall. Carlo is the owner. We get to meet the rest of Lowlands; Francesco, Alex, Enrico and Mattia. They are warm men with ready smiles; it’s so welcoming. Lowlands soundcheck and it sounds great. The Strikes are bone tired but everyone is putting on a brave face. Ed informs us that gigs don’t start until very late in Italy, we’re headlining – an honour- at around midnight. We share dinner, which is a Lasagne with meat, pesto and walnuts. We drink red wine, (which has a fizz to it) and water. We talk and we laugh and life feels good. Lowlands play a super opening set and the Strikes dance, even though it uses precious energy.
We take to the stage around midnight. The room is so very hot and I feel like I’m wading through treacle but we play for all our worth; five men who have been up for twenty hours and who desperately need to play music to free ourselves from the bonds of our daily lives, of the airports and the roadways. Lowlands join us for a rendition of Fisherman’s Blues as an encore and things take off. People are hollering. I jump around the tables and nearly hit a man in the head with my guitar. Sharing the stage with them is magical. I keep trying to think why it excites me so much. It must be something to do with comradeship. To join forces. I look at Ed at one moment and he is beaming from ear to ear. I know exactly what he’s feeling, I know exactly why he is doing this very same thing that I do even though he is thousands of miles from my home. Shared human experience – you can’t beat it.
We arrive home at gone 4am. I was due to share a bed with Dave but Paulie is too drunk and it’s advised he sleeps downstairs so he doesn’t kill himself on the hard and tiled continental stairs. Toby and I share Ed’s daughter’s room and I am amazed at the luminescent stars that are stuck to the ceiling. It seems one of the most beautiful things....I am so very tired, I can think of no other explanation.
Saturday 1st March 2014
We surface around Noon. Ed says an Espresso is like a full stop to everything; your dinner, your day and your slumber. A few espressos later we are planning lunch and myself, Dave and Will head out to the pizzeria to grab our first Italian pizzas. We toast our first gig with Prosecco while we wait for the pizzas to be cooked. The man making the pizzas smiles when Ed explains we are English. He takes pride in what he is doing and tenderly peels of the cured ham and arranges it onto the pizza as if he is at a demonstration, us being the judges.
The pizzas are good. Ed explains over lunch that most Italian food is simple. Pizzas will only have two or three toppings. Italy has had many periods of poverty and Italians have learnt to eat well but simply. We finish lunch with an espresso.
Our second gig is at SpazioMusica in Pavia. Ed shows us around the town which to this Englishman is truly breathtaking. The lanes twist around the town and we visit Saint Michael’s church. The sandstone is worn on the outside and the faces of the figures are lost. Only the angels, safe under the overhangs of the friezes, are saved. The church is medieval and looks rickety when we enter. The church was the site of the coronation of the Lombard kings in the fifth and sixth centuries and as we pace around I try to imagine those regal events so long ago. Effigies and relics line the alcoves around the nave. Mary holds a distraught and dying Jesus in her arms, life size. I can’t take my eyes of his face. It seems real.
We continue through the rain towards the main square and Dave buys his much needed tobacco. ‘Golden Virginia’ is the same in any language although he nearly gets charged seventy Euros by mistake. We get taken to a bar in the square. Teenagers sprawl around the tables outside and we opt for the warmth inside. Most of us go for hot chocolate. It’s much, much thicker than English chocolate. It’s as if they have melted a chocolate bar. I eat it with a spoon to save my moustache. We hoof around the lanes some more, laughing and joking. I notice elderly ladies in knitted tank tops and white hair peering out of windows high above us. We visit San Teodoro but there is a service.
We walk along the river’s edge and have a photo near the Old Bridge. Ed explains that it was built by the devil himself after the towns folk failed to build one themselves after so many years. The people of Pavia promised the devil the first soul to cross the bridge in payment but they fooled him and tossed a ball across the bridge. A dog chased it and was the first soul to cross. Legend has it that you can still hear the Devil screaming in anger on the bridge in the dead of night.
We head back to the venue and eat another hearty meal with Lowlands and their promoters, Rise Up. A band called Shiver are also there and we chat briefly before we pose for a long table shot. Rise Up have used the gig as a celebration and have put on a selection of wines and some salami. A renouned type of salami is made not far from Pavia and it is tremendous. We eat plenty and feel like sleeping again. Matteo, a partner in Rise Up, shows us the local provincial paper, which carries a picture of us and states we are ‘invading’.
We open for Lowlands tonight and I am able to run around the crowd as far as ten feet. I’m literally in the middle of the audience, Toby is sitting down with a guy in the front as he fiddles away! The carnival starts on Monday so there are a few women dressed as Zoro, with masks and wide brimmed hats. The crowd come up to meet us and by the time Lowlands finish their set, they are moshing and clawing at the stage. We do a rendition of New Avalon and Fisherman’s Blues again. Elation is palpable. The crowd are baying for more and Will jumps over the drum kit to embrace Mattia and ends up kicking the kit across the stage. The atmosphere isn’t violent but by God, this is the closest the Strikes have ever come to a full blown riot at a gig. The walls could have melted for all I know.
Post gig Will and Paul duck out with Mattia to visit Inter-Milan’s stadium and end up in an empty and unfurnished flat by themselves. Myself, Toby and Dave go with Francesco to his house in Corbetta. It’s near Magenta, which is a town where there was a bloody Napoleonic battle. The colour of the French uniform supposedly lends its name to the colour that makes up most of the printer cartridges in this world. We share a bed and I get no sleep. Dave and Toby sleep good.
Sunday 2nd March 2014
We shuffle about tired and worn and eat Gorgonzola for breakfast. It’s great. Francesco is a very entertaining and interesting speaker. He has visited England a lot and we hear lots of stories. He drives us to the airport and I get a view of the Alps again. They are glorious from the ground as well as the air. We hook up with Paul and Will and head back to London. Will beats his high score in Tetris just as the plane breaks through the clouds and we spy the slate grey runway of London Gatwick Airport.